An older gentleman with a look of earnest concern approached me after I gave a talk on Sept. 7 in St. Louis Park.

I'd suggested that one thing Minnesotans can to do to help overcome partisan gridlock is simply to talk to one another. Strike up a genuine conversation with someone from the opposite party. Find out whether you share the same hopes, concerns and goals for the state and the nation.

"I've tried, and it doesn't work!" he said. "I talk to those fellows in my building, and all they want to do is call the president names and say how horrible he is. They won't listen -- they won't even let me talk!"

His words were on my mind Wednesday at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs as I watched the debut of the Civil Conversations Project.

It's a rare collaboration -- a four-part series to be aired beginning this weekend on American Public Media's "On Being" program, done with the help of the Humphrey School and the Brookings Institution and co-sponsored by the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics.

The project tells me that the difficulty described to me by the man in St. Louis Park is epidemic. And that big thinkers share that fellow's concern, and mine, that the inability of average Americans to comfortably talk with one another about civic matters is depleting something fundamental to democracy. It's weakening the trust that citizens need in each other to govern a country together.

Krista Tippett agrees. The host and producer of "On Being" talked before taping the first episode about why she decided that a show about religion and faith should spend so much air time on the quality of American political discourse.

She said she has heard from many Americans who "feel that our civic life is broken, that bipartisan consensus is inconceivable. People feel weary, unrepresented and demoralized, and want to pull out" of politics. National unity of the sort fondly (and not always accurately) remembered from the mid-20th century seems to have evaporated.

"Americans have a longing to be on the same page. But with all of the things vexing us now -- the definition of marriage, of family, of life itself, of what kind of economy our children will inherit -- the reality is, we won't be on the same page. Working these things out will be a matter of generations, not election cycles."

That might sound discouraging, but to this amateur historian, it also sounds realistic. In today's red/blue political divide lies the residue of centuries-old quarrels -- New England/Virginia, Protestant/Catholic, Cromwell/the crown.

Those divisions all became bloody. That's history's warning to today's political combatants.

"Our conduct in our public spaces may be as important as the positions we take," Tippett said. "How do we walk in disagreement while keeping as much of our society intact as we can?"

Her search for answers to that question led her to the guests on the first program in the series.

Both Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, and Gabe Lyons, founder of Q, a Christian learning community, qualify for the label "evangelical Christian." But both say they and their organizations are trying to speak and act in ways that counter the worst of the reputation in civic life that evangelical Christians have acquired.

Tippett cited a study Lyons did that sums up that bad rap: It says 16-to 29-year-old Americans surveyed associate the word Christian with "antihomosexual, judgmental, hypocritical, too political and boring."

"This is not who Jesus is," Lyons said. His group Q is an attempt to "give voice to Christians who are not satisfied with this being the reputation of Jesus."

Added Daly: "As a Christian community we've placed too much of an emphasis on a political solution as opposed to changing hearts in the culture." Changing hearts happens with a kinder, gentler, humbler approach than many people bring to political discussions, he said. "If you don't have a heart for people, you don't have a heart for God."

Thinking like theirs has me imagining a different role for religious groups in the public square -- not advocates for officialdom's idea of the truth, but conveners, trainers and facilitators of conversations among citizens sharing their own truth.

The Minnesota Council of Churches has been doing just that this year. Its "Respectful Conversations Project" has generated dozens of conversations about same-sex marriage in congregations around the state, led by facilitators trained to keep the proceedings inclusive and respectful.

That project, funded with the help of the Bush Foundation, is pegged to the same-sex marriage ban on the Nov. 6 ballot. But it could be the start of something more. It could model a better way for citizens to discuss disputed issues, starting not with either/or, but with "here's what we have in common."

"We have allowed ourselves to be captive to extremely polarizing ways to framing and discussing issues," Tippett said. Yet polling has found that "even on those most inflammatory issues, abortion and marriage, there is a moral consensus in the middle. Why not start any conversation there?"

I'll be listening to her next three programs for clues about how that's done.


Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.